Mother-Loving Sons: This May Be the Last DH Lawrence Novel I Read For a While

DH Lawrence was a really weird dude.

I held my breath in reserve over the last two months as I journeyed through three of his most famous novels: The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Sons and Lovers. Now I can finally exhale and release a few spasmodic gas pains as I reel slightly from a head rush.

It’s not that Lawrence doesn’t have talent or interesting things to say. He has plenty of that. He can look at human relationships within the context of a changing culture and at a personal, nitty-gritty perspective at the same time. He can make you uncomfortable. He can make you realize, “Oh, I’ve had that experience too.” He can make you think about politics, God, art, sex, marriage and wonder if you got it right. But man, he is weird.

I officially concluded this after finishing his quasi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers.

Sons and Lovers starts out as an intimate look into the life of a dysfunctional family: the Morels. Mrs. Morel and Mr. Morel ain’t exactly happy. It seems like they spend more time hurling accusations and pieces of furniture at each other than they do conversing. In spite of this Mrs. Morel finds out she’s pregnant with a third kid and bitterly resigns herself to the fate. The reader wonders, how the hey do people end up in these crappy situations to begin with? Seriously.

This is the brilliant part about Lawrence. He gives his readers the backstory on all his important characters, and over an arc of time we see how their personalities and choices form their eventual lives – for better or for worse.

Just take the Morels as an example. Mrs. Gertrude Morel as a young woman is intrigued by Walter Morel’s affable easy manners and excellent dance moves. Walter Morel is struck by Gertrude’s sophisticated airs.   Unfortunately Gertrude Morel is a serious, intellectual type of woman who expects too much out of her simplistic and even brutish spouse who supports his family as a coal miner while getting tippled on the side as often as he can. Soon Mr. Morel turns abusive. Newly married warm and fuzzies grow cold and brittle.   Poor Mrs. Morel, in early 20th century England, doesn’t have many options at this point.

Enter the chillins’.

Mrs. Morel’s sole joy is life soon becomes her four offspring. She especially has a soft spot for her sons, as she seeks to mold them into the men her husband should have been. Oh the psychological family drama begins in earnest now.

Son #1, William, brings home an uppity city girl who is modern parlance is something of a “poser.” Mom doesn’t approve, but has a fascinatingly diplomatic way of keeping the peace and using her gentle prompting questions to undermine her son’s commitment to his shallow girlfriend. We’re excited to see things play out, but tragedy strikes and Mrs. Morel is forced to shift the bulk of her hopes and affections on Son #2, Paul.   The other two chillins’, Annie and Arthur, get married and begin their own mundane journeys and that leaves Paul to be the center of his mother’s microcosm and the ultimate protagonist of the story.

Now things get angsty.

Paul has a crush on his childhood sweetheart Miriam, but Mrs. Morel doesn’t approve at all. Miriam is what you could call the opposite of down-to-earth: she fancies herself “a princess turned swine girl” and is waiting for the perfect relationship to come along that is all metaphysical and no physical. She and Paul are “lovers” for a number of years, even though they hardly even hold hands.   Paul is sexually frustrated (no kidding) and Mom uses his frustrated outbursts to let her son know she thinks Miriam’s not good enough.

Enter Clara.

It wouldn’t be a DH Lawrence novel without a bit of scandal, and that’s why we have the married suffragist Clara Dawes who is currently exploring life apart from her overbearing husband Baxter. Clara is sexy and beautiful like Miriam, but she’s also sexual and Paul finds this a welcome relief. They enter headlong into a passionate yet sad affair as Mrs. Morel looks on with a reserved sort of knowingness.

So which woman is Paul going to ultimately go for: his eccentric soul mate or the wordly modern woman? Apparently neither one, as long as Mrs. Morel is still alive.

“But no, mother. I even love Clara, and I did Miriam; but to give myself to them in marriage I couldn’t. I couldn’t belong to them. They seem to want me, and I can’t ever give it to them.”

 “You haven’t met the right woman.”

 “And I never shall meet the right woman while you live,” he said.

 Oh, that sneaky, baffling, twisted, sympathetic Mrs. Morel. She might be my favorite character (or least unfavorite character) in the story, if only because of those qualities. Does she truly want her son to be happy with the right girl, or is she reading from a stock script to throw her son off the scent? Is she even aware of her own twisted motives?

I really hate to use the term Freudian. It sounds so cliché and overused and even outdated. But as far as I can tell, Freudian is exactly what we’ve got going on in Sons and Lovers. We get whiffs of it in early childhood when Paul Morel is sad his mom is going to sleep in her husband’s bed after they have a fight. We get a taste of it when we read how Paul and his mother are on a holiday, “feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together.”   And even the staunchest deniers can’t help but raise their eyebrows when a distraught Mrs. Morel utters between sobs as she clings to Paul, “And I’ve never- you know, Paul – I’ve never had a husband – not really –.”

Wow.

So, is this a story about incest or what?

Not exactly. DH Lawrence was scandalous by early 20th century standards, but not so much by early 21st ones.   So no, there’s no epic Oedipal tragedy here where Paul sleeps with his mom and stabs his own eyes out (sorry if that spoils things).   But you could say there’s a more subtle tragedy in the way Paul’s over-attachment to his mother affects his relationship with other women.  Ironic family dynamics affecting future generations are something we can all relate to, for sure.

But in true Lawrence fashion, his characters are a bit off the wall. And by that I mean they are almost as weird as he is.

Let’s take Miriam, the “swine girl princess,” Paul’s platonic lover. Even though Paul treats her like crap at times while they’re growing up together Miriam believes they are destined to be together. She’s not interested in sex or even marriage necessarily, but still somehow thinks Paul will come round to her lofty terms and they two will become one in soul as they talk about books and religion all day long.   Sounds romantic, right? And during the times that Paul becomes so frustrated with her that he has to leave for weeks and months at a time she sits around blithely with no inkling of a concern that he might actually never come back! Miriam could stand to read a few self-help books on male-female relationships.

Then there’s Clara, the suffragist. When you first meet Clara you think, “Oh cool, the modern woman who will put her foot down and reign in some of Paul’s wishy-washiness– this is it!”   But Clara ends up as a sideshow, basically to feed Paul’s physical cravings while his spiritual, emotional and metaphysical cravings continue to be all over the place. Clara is “not deep, not a bit,” and Paul likes it that way.

Now to the main attraction. Paul Morel is probably the most confusing person in the whole book, and since he also gets the most stage time, that makes for some rather confused readers. Does he want to get married? Does he want to live with his mom forever? Does he have any healthy relationships with men at all, and is that part of the problem? Poor Paul doesn’t seem quite able to figure himself out, and that accounts for some of his crankiness towards other people. Some, mind you. He seems to “hate” a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and in fact…

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel full of so much hatred

I counted the word “hate” in Sons and Lovers over 110 times.   The swordsman Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride comes to mind: “You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

At some point in Sons and Lovers, almost every character hates someone else. Mrs. Morel hates her husband and her sons’ girlfriends. Paul hates Clara’s husband and he hates Paul. Paul has momentary feelings of hatred for Clara and vice versa. But no one hates anyone as much as Paul hates Miriam – and of course that’s because Miriam knows Paul better than anyone. Paul hates Miriam when she’s gathering flowers, when she makes his mom jealous, when she struggles to learn algebra, when she’s being his “conscience.” There’s basically not a time that Paul is not hating Miriam.

“Frequently he hated Miriam. He hated her as she bent forward and pored over his things. He hated her way of patiently casting him up, as if he were an endless psychological account.

Half the time he grieved for her, half the time he hated her. She was his conscience; and he felt , somehow, he had got a conscience that was too much for him. 

There was a long battle between him and her. He was utterly unfaithful to her even in her own presence; then he was ashamed, then repentant; then he hated her, and went off again. Those were the ever-recurring conditions.

 I could go on but I think you get the point.

Understandably, we can forgive Miriam when she in turn has a few moments of hating Paul.

But why, why all this anguish?! Is what I was subconsciously asking over and over as I neared the end of the novel but the characters hadn’t neared the end of their own struggles. I seriously want to whip these people in the face with their own soiled handkerchiefs. I know, I’m not being sympathetic enough. If I came from a dysfunctional family I would understand, and I don’t.

I do understand illuminating passages like this, where Lawrence shines the spotlight on human nature at its core:

The pity was, she (Mrs. Morel) was too much his (Mr. Morel’s) opposite. She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him.

Oh snap, remember the famous adage that women think they can change men? Perhaps this is where it all began to go wrong, and the battered Mrs. Morel is in some ways the perpetrator.

Sons and Lovers is a great novel if you’re looking for “Freud Lite” and want a closer glimpse at – and understanding of – tortured human relationships. This is one of those books, in fact, where the conversation (or even memory) afterwards might be more memorable than the reading itself.   If tortured human relationships and the gratuitous use of the word “hate” are not your thing, then consider Elizabeth Gaskell or anyone else pre-1890’s and definitely stay away from DH Lawrence.

For me, reading DH Lawrence is like cooking with cayenne pepper powder: it gives some great startling sensations and wakens my faculties, but if I eat (read) too much at once I’ll burn out. I know because I learned that the hard way.

7 Things to know about Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell is not exactly a household name, but perhaps it should be. Wives and Daughters is a great novel and personally, more enjoyable than anything I’ve read by Charles Dickens who happens to be much more famous. (I know, let the flame wars begin). So, if like most people you know nothing about “Mrs. Gaskell,” or if you are interested in learning more, here are 7 fascinating details.

1. Her childhood was a bit like Cinderella’s.

 

That’s right – the start of her life, not so much the end. She was the last of a series of children who had nearly all died in infancy. Her poor mother died herself of exhaustion soon after giving birth to her. Her father, perhaps out of resentment or pained memory, kept his distance and married again. To make it worse, her stepmother wasn’t exactly warm, either.

 

Things took another tragic turn when Elizabeth was 18. Her brother John was lost at sea, and her father also passed away. Luckily, she had an optimistic disposition and a foundation of happy childhood memories with her aunt.  She would go on to marry a handsome but rather austere minister, Mr. William Gaskell – not quite Prince Charming. Things started looking up after that, but Elizabeth’s trials weren’t over yet.

2. She started writing novels because her son died.

 

Who says housewives can’t write novels? That’s “all” Elizabeth Gaskell was until her son William died at the mere age of 9 months. Gaskell already had 3 other children, but it was still a devastating blow. She fell into a bedridden state of depression.

 

Mr. Gaskell was a pretty cool husband, luckily. He knew that his wife was good at writing because she had already penned some short stories. He suggested she try writing a novel as a therapeutic way to distract herself. Mrs. Gaskell took her husband up on the challenge, and the result was Mary Barton – her first of many more writings to come.

3. She was good friends with Charlotte Brontë – and she even wrote her biography

 

Gaskell and Brontë are more opposite than alike at first glance. Gaskell was extroverted, sociable and matronly, while her more famous counterpart was introverted and single. In keeping with her sage and matronly nature, Gaskell gave some handy marriage advice to Brontë that led her to eventually wed her suitor, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

 

Apparently Charlotte Brontë’s father, Patrick Brontë also had a high opinion of Gaskell. After Charlotte’s death he approached Gaskell with the hope that she would write Charlotte’s biography. Gaskell did just that, and The Life of Charlotte Brontë is still read and widely studied by historians today. 100% transparent it is not, but it was a singular achievement at the time because it was a famous lady novelist writing about another famous lady novelist. It was also original in that Gaskell chose to focus on Brontë’s character and personal life over her works. The biography created some controversy at the time it debuted but perhaps that’s not surprising. It was about the life of Charlotte Brontë, after all.

 

4. She sometimes butted heads with Charles Dickens

 

Imagine trying to balance a work and personal relationship with the most formidable and popular writer in the nation. Somehow Gaskell managed to do so with Dickens, and she was a regular contributor to his magazine, Household Words. In fact, he was impressed enough with her storytelling skills to refer to her as, “My Dear Scheherazade.” Sounds like they were close.

 

That doesn’t mean their partnership was all peaches and cream, though. Apparently Dickens was always wanting to edit and change her writing to suit his own preferences and at one point in total frustration declared, “If I were Mr. G, oh heavens, how I would beat her!”

 

Hopefully Mr. G never got wind of that.

 

      5. She loved people.

 

In 1850 the Gaskells moved into a picturesque Neoclassical home at 84 Plymouth Grove.   In a surviving letter to a friend, a giddy Gaskell gushes about how excited she is to make the place her own.   It seems she did, because soon she had a steady stream of visitors.

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84 Plymouth Grove today.  I would definitely invite people over if I lived here.

 

84 Plymouth became the sight for many parties and entertaining gatherings of luminaries and intellectual folk from near and far. In addition to Brontë and Dickens Gaskell also hosted Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Norton, Charles Hallé and John Ruskin. And for what it’s worth, she was also friends with Florence Nightingale.

6. Her novels became famous because they tackled subjects other authors avoided.

 

Gaskell’s debut novel Mary Barton raised several eyebrows as the subject matter dealt up close and personal with illegitimate childbirth and the inner life of a working class woman. Her novel Ruth was explored the seduction and downfall of a poor seamstress. Such subject matter written from the point of view of a woman was rather new territory at the time and in spite of some critical voices, it helped her books to sell well indeed.

 

Gaskell was very much preoccupied with helping the poorer and lower classes, and made a point of making personal visits to such people often.  She worked hard to represent the situations of the lower classes in her works, and to recreate their different accents and dialects authentically.

7. She lived life to the fullest.

 

When Elizabeth Gaskell moved to 84 Plymouth Grove she took along a cow. I personally think that’s both awesome and inspiring – what animal would you move into your new home after you made it as a bestselling author?

 

If you just look at the bare facts of her history you can see Gaskell was a person who delighted in a lot of different things and had a lust for life. She made a point of traveling often, and usually independent of her husband. She ventured as far as France, Italy, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. She was equally happy in London and absolutely loved to be out of the house and calling on friends.

 

She schemed and dreamed her way up to the end of her life. She became worn out and exhausted from all her writing and other obligations and still she somehow managed to secretly buy a house to surprise her family with(!) It was at this very same house, in fact, where she dropped dead of a heart attack right in the middle of a tea party with friends.

 

If that’s not the way to go then I’m not sure what is.

 

Elizabeth Gaskell created a pattern of life that many of us – especially aspiring writers – could take a few cues from. Her life was not spared from heartache, and in fact it helped to mold her talent. Yet she was incredibly positive and energetic and, if I may venture to say so, an encouraging example among so many more bleak and depressing ones in the world of esteemed literature.

 

Whether or not you like her stuff, you can’t deny that Elizabeth Gaskell made something of her life. And if you haven’t read any of her works yet, perhaps this quick insight into her life and character will motivate you to do just that.

The other Jane Austen novel

Wives and Daughters may be the most satisfying unfinished novel ever

The subtitle to Wives and Daughters is, “An Everyday Story.” The writer is Elizabeth Gaskell – during her time she was known to fans as, “Mrs. Gaskell,” because, well, she was a proper married lady and that was just the custom.

Meh, you might be thinking right now. Some old fuddy duddy Victorian lady writing boring stories about everyday life. I’ll pass.

 You do so at your loss.

Gaskell is actually one of the coolest under-the-radar Victorians out there. Incidentally, being from the Victorian times does not make you an out-of-touch prude. Gaskell had the stereotypical profile: farm girl grown into a robust beauty, married to a minister and mother to multiple children. The reality is, she was very intellectual, great with people, well traveled and passionate about life. Oh, and she could write a damn good story. About everyday life.

So let’s talk about Wives and Daughters.

Molly Gibson is the daughter of a widowed doctor who is quite respected in his community. The two of them have a very cozy relationship and Molly lives a carefree sort of life with no wish for anything further. Mr. Gibson, on the other hand, feels that he should become even more respectable and thinks of getting a mother for Molly. Enter the eligible, widowed Mrs. Hyacinth Clare Fitzpatrick.

Oh, so it’s going to be a Cinderella story, is it? Not so fast.

It’s true that the new Mrs. Gibson is both vain and self absorbed. [“Marriage is the natural thing,” she declares. “Then the husband has all that kind of dirty work to do and his wife sits in the drawing-room like a lady”). And she does indeed have a daughter of her own, which means that Molly now has a stepsister as well. But unlike what you might expect, Mr. Gibson does not die. And Mrs. Gibson is not wicked. In fact, she treats Molly quite well and favors her over her own daughter, the hotheaded beauty Cynthia. There’s a bit of power struggle, you see. And Molly and Cynthia – why, they become best friends.

So the guy…Prince Charming or whoever. Does he come onto the scene? Are there two Prince Charmings or what?

 In the old town where the Gibson family lives also resides the eminent old Hamley family. “The Hamleys of Hamley” who have been there since time immemorial, as their old fashioned and blue-blooded patriarch Squire Hamley loves to affirm. The Hamleys have two sons. Of course.

There’s a kind of a clash going on between the supremely handsome elder son, Osborne– who’s a bit more cosmopolitan and open-minded, shall we say – and his old man. Osborne is looked to as the shining star and the more promising of the two. He’s got a sensitive side and a knack for poetry. Good-natured Roger, on the other hand, loves crawling around in the outdoors and studying bugs. He and Ma Hamley help to mediate when the old Squire and Osbourne don’t see eye to eye.

Then Ma Hamley gets really sick and all of Hamley Hall is in a funk. And of course, Molly and Cynthia are involved as the drama plays out. But things don’t happen quite as you might expect, and Molly discovers a great and shocking secret about one of the Hamley sons that she must keep to herself.

Wives and Daughters, put simply, is a great story with a plot and characters that draw you in. And it translates to any age and any time.

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I know, there’s even something Jane Austen-y about Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrait.

 You know how Jane Austen stories have been adapted into contemporary and even multi-cultural film versions? Wives and Daughters is also one of those laugh-cry-laugh again whirlwind storylines that could translate into an awesome modern adaptation. I wish they would make one.

Mr. Gibson and Hyacinth’s blissful expectations soon turn into dysfunctional reality as they butt heads on how to run the household. I swear Gaskell must have had Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennett in mind when we see Mr. Gibson in the parlor, grumbling behind his newspapers as Mrs. Gibson prattles on.   Yet we never see Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have an uncomfortably real argument beside the fireplace as Gaskell so masterfully shows Mr. and Mrs. Gibson having.

Cynthia may also be vain like her mother, but we sympathize with her history because her mother emotionally neglected her. In front of men she is the stereotypical siren type who wears an “armour of magic” and exercises an “unconscious power of fascination” over those around her; but Molly knows who Cynthia is deep down and that’s how they are such friends.

One of my favorite lines is when Cynthia confesses to Molly:

“But it’s no use talking; I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.”

What was that famous phrase about good girls rarely making history?

Anyways, Cynthia is a mess at times, but we feel for her.   And we’re intrigued and a little intimidated by her mysterious suitor, Mr. Preston (yet another great character for the screen).

Molly may be the “good girl” of the story and the foil to Cynthia and her recklessness, but that doesn’t mean she’s drab. Unlike a 1-dimensional Dickens heroine who sits prettily in a chair all day and smilingly acquiesces to everything around her, Molly has a bit of fire in her. She is her father’s daughter, after all. And she’s always ready to save the day:

“He shall not!” said Molly, rising up in her indignation, and standing before Cynthia almost as resolutely fierce as if she were in the very presence of Mr. Preston himself. “I am not afraid of him. He dares not insult me, or if he does, I do not care.   I will ask him for those letters, and see if he dare refuse me.”

 I have a feeling Molly Gibson and Lizzie Bennett would’ve gotten along.

Lest you think this is a female-centric book with male characters as mere props, Mrs. Gaskell does a splendid job with men as well. Squire Hamley is one of her best creations: he’s an old codger, crusty, insular and even xenophobic and suspicious of anything foreign. We might hear a trace of an old red-necked relative of our own when Mr. Hamley says to Roger about his science book: “I should have understood it better if they could have called the animals by they English names, and not put so much of their French jingo into it.” He goes on to brag about how the British defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo in a way that would make any liberal at the dinner table cringe.

But Squire Hamley is no hard-hearted villain or stock character. Like many fathers we know, he is very tender deep down and terrified of anything that could harm his family. When he is finally forced to face some of his worst fears we see the true Squire Hamley emerge and let’s just say…he just might be my favorite character in the whole book.

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Squire Hamley – you just gotta love him.  (Imagine from TheVillageSmith.wordpress.com).

Finally, Gaskell is just an all-round whiz at understanding human nature.

 I don’t know if it’s a specific attribute of 19th century female authors because women back then spent so much time in close quarters with other people, but Elizabeth Gaskell understood people. And she knew how to write about it – and make it funny.

Just check out this passage, describing a young man who is smitten with a vivacious and charming female:

He was at that age when young men admired a formed beauty more than a face with any amount of future capability of loveliness, and when they are morbidly conscious of the difficulty of finding subjects of conversation in talking to girls in a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood.

 I think, given the nature of this description I am 90% sure I can guess what “hobbledehoyhood” is. What an awesome word. I will need to start using that from now on.

A final thought about Wives and Daughters.

It was left unfinished due to Gaskell’s sudden death. But that doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying.

 You can see where things are going at the close of the novel. Without spoiling things, I will say this: the unexpected perk of the sudden and unfinished ending is that, depending on how you feel about the situation, you can imagine exactly the ending you want. Personally, for me that made it more gratifying. And for all I know, the ideal ending I had in mind is the same one Gaskell had imagined. Maybe not. Ignorance is bliss.

According to Wikipedia, (who is to be trusted about 50% of the time) Mrs. Gaskell was influenced by Jane Austen. The similarities are hard to deny and there definitely is an appeal there. But Wives and Daughters is absolutely worth reading for its own sake.

 

 

*Note:  Although this is a review for the book, the character images are taken from the BBC film adaptation.  This is because, well, photos of real people are nicer to look at than old first edition sketches.  Also, the BBC adaptation is pretty good.  But not as good as the book, let’s face it.   

High Court of Chicanery: A Review of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Is it a true classic or literary wiglomeration? The jury is still out.

After surviving Bleak House I am a Charles Dickens hold out.

You can’t say I didn’t try. Every day for two weeks, between 12:30 and 2 pm I watched over a room of sleeping 3-year-olds and with nothing else to pass the time I slogged my way through this 900-paged behemoth.

I tried to comprehend what was happening in the first chapter. I tried to understand what the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit was all about. But once it became apparent that such an understanding was beyond hope – and besides the point – I gave myself up to the numbing chaos of the evil, swirling London fog and the rest of the novel passed before my eyes like disjointed scenes in a phantasmagoria in which I drifted in and out of consciousness and sometimes what even felt like a coma.

And no, believe it or not, the book isn’t all that “bleak.” It’s just mind numbingly oblique.

Part of the obliquity is intentional, for sure. The main premise (if there is one) is an ongoing lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce that no one quite understands. No, scratch that: no one remotely understands, and that is to include the reader.   We figure it involves an inheritance of money of some sort, because some of the characters are hopeful in benefitting from it, but for the most part, it’s a miserable mess. Dickens, true to his brutally repetitive fashion, slams us over the head in his opening chapter with the hopelessness and the futility of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case and runs the London fog metaphor ragged.

Many fans of Bleak House point to the fact that in this novel Dickens’ outlook is darker and more cynical and mature, and he gives a scathing critique of the High Court of Chancery, the court of law at that time, and its hopelessly bureaucratic shortcomings.   He describes the members of the High Court of Chancery as, “mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might.”

Anyone who’s been through a divorce, a serious health problem or other unfortunate life event might well relate to the despair that comes with too much red tape. The message is important. But unfortunately, the most piercing and profound passages in Bleak House are tiny nuggets lodged in a mountain heap of descriptive rambling.

The narration is divided between a generic 3rd person observer and the 1st person observations of our heroine, Esther Summerson. The contrast between the darker 3rd person and Esther’s hopeful and guileless voice is no doubt intentional, and it makes for some admittedly interesting perspective. I found myself preferring Esther’s warmer and more personable voice – even though it is not as objective and omniscient – to the 3rd person vignettes concerned more with side plots.

Esther enters the story when her cruel godmother dies and she becomes the ward of Mr. Jarndyce and close friends to a pair of cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Richard and Ada are also connected to Mr. Jarndyce and they hope to benefit from the lawsuit’s outcome. In the meantime, Esther lives a blissfully contented life as housekeeper to kindly Mr. Jarndyce and never utters a peep of complaint or negativity- even after her face is ravaged by smallpox.

Through both Esther’s eyes and the narrator’s we inspect a parade of various characters ranging from sweet to pathetic to absolutely grotesque. True again to Dickens fashion the parade is a long one, and the names are cartoonish and full of hard consonants – from Mrs. Pardiggle to Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby. You could almost measure the “caricature” factor from the names themselves: note that “Esther Summerson” and “Allan Woodcourt” are much nicer and more believable names, as they are nicer and more normal people.

Then there are the ambiguous in-between types, like the dogged detective Mr. Bucket and the mysterious Lady Dedlock and the sad and shocking mystery that surrounds her. Long as Bleak House is, it does have a beginning, middle and end, and I must admit, a fair and fitting conclusion that will not have the reader in stitches.

The novel, overall though, was a fail for me personally. I will try to highlight the main reasons I hold this opinion.

 

  1. The characters in Bleak House are mainly caricatures. Caricatures work fine for bad people, but not for good people.

 

It is debatable whether it’s good or bad (or neutral) for characters to be caricatures. Obviously there is a case to be made, otherwise Dickens, who is the caricaturist of them all, wouldn’t still be so bloody popular.

In some cases, the over-the-top-ness of his characters manage to induce a giggle or two while still revealing a truth about human nature. This is in the best cases. A good example would be Harold Skimpole, the bafflingly irresponsible and good-naturedly selfish “eternal child.” Harold is so out of touch with reality and all things normal and adult that he doesn’t pay his bills because he thinks money is silly. However, he has no objection to other people giving him money, either as a bribe or bail, and uses such absurd logic to do so that he actually surpasses hypocrisy to the point of being straight-up loony. The crusty detective Bucket calls him like he sees them:

“Whenever a person proclaims to you, ‘In world matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.”

Unsurprisingly, Skimpole reveals his true colors in the end by lashing out at Mr. Jarndyce and calling him “selfish,” when in fact Mr. Jarndyce is quite the opposite and simply doesn’t cater to Skimpole’s bizarre sense of entitlement. Pretty sure we’ve all met a Skimpole or two in our lives who drove us almost as crazy.

Two other good examples of extreme negative caricatures are the pathetic parental figures, Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby. Mr. Turveydrop affects generosity to his son Prince for “allowing” him to marry Caddy Jellyby when in reality he is a shameless sponge who lives off his poor son’s hard work and really doesn’t have a right to stake a claim. It’s a shameful scenario in which the parent-child relationship is reverted, and one we have probably all seen but hope not to see again.

Mrs. Jellyby is even more wicked. The perfect picture of hypocrisy, she is absorbed in lofty charitable work in overseas Africa while ignoring the needs of her own children. She is cold, even emotionally negligent to her daughter Caddy, and Caddy’s friend Esther observes in Mrs. Jellyby “a serene contempt for our limited sphere of action.”

These are successful examples of extreme, even cartoonish and darkly humorous characters who exemplify the worst of human nature. Dickens has a bone to pick with such people and in Bleak House makes it abundantly clear that there is a special place in hell for anyone who oppresses children – especially their own.

The problem of caricature comes when we get to the good guys. You can laugh at someone who’s horrible, but a saint? They’re neither funny, believable or unique. Not unlike the famous sentence from Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” you could say that while bad people can be bad in different ways, a perfect person is going to be boring because he or she will have every imaginable virtue with no exception.

Take Mr. Jarndyce. For the first half of Bleak House I kept waiting, almost with dread, for something unfortunate to rear itself in the man. He is just too nice and too kind, generous, patient and benign, almost like Santa Claus or God himself. And then I finally realized that was the point and that that Mr. Jarndyce is a God-like archetype. When he makes an incredibly generous gesture near the end of the novel that surpasses all his prior generous gestures you sort of do a double take. “Really? Who is this guy?” Clearly something who belongs in a snuggly fairy tale world of black and white.

Mr. Jarndyce has got nothing on our flawless heroine, Esther Summerson, however. Dickens has a reputation for unrealistically perfect young female characters that grates even on his fans, and Esther is no exception.

Here is an example in which Esther is singing the praises of her eternally gracious guardian, Mr. Jarndyce:

My thought was how could I ever be busy enough, how could I ever be good enough, how in my little way could I ever hope to be forgetful enough of myself, devoted enough to him, and useful enough to others, to show him how I blessed and honored him.

 When she comes to live in her new home provided by Mr. Jarndyce after her wicked godmother dies, she declares, “If a good fairy had built the house for me with a wave of her wand, and I had been a princess and her favored god-child, I could not have been more considered in it.” How…sweet.

Esther rejoices in the kindness shown to her by others, and in return passes along such kindness down to the poorest and most unfortunate souls with unflagging zeal. She has no care or consideration for herself in even the most important matters.   She is so self-effacing as a narrator that she focuses all her attention onto other people and events that she almost becomes invisible at times.   Her humility is refreshing to a point, but believable or relatable it is not.

I would argue that good, exemplary characters do not need to be without flaw in order to be such. It is insulting to a reader’s intelligence to think that they should be perfect if we are to emulate them in any way, but here it could be a difference in taste. And if Esther Summerson and Mr. Jarndyce had a taste, it would be that of bubblegum bonbons.

 

  1. Melodramatic vignettes with side characters get old fast

 

I have a serious confession to make. I actually scrolled through the Cliff Notes summary after finishing Bleak House because I just spaced too many of the scenes with the minor characters.

Normally I can focus. Normally I can at least attach a name to a person. But Bleak House has what feels like 137 characters and most of them are so outrageously weird and off-beat and so haphazardly slipped into the scene that if you blank out for just a moment or two, you might not even realize what’s going on. That London fog really must be potent.

When I try to recall the full cast of Bleak House, all I can recall mainly are snatches of lurid scenes and images: a dejected mother sitting at the fireside with a dead child in her arms, a drawn-out argument between two minor characters with goofy names ending in –iggle or – aggle or –uggle, a street urchin named Jo who is probably more important than I realize, a crazy old lady, a kid named Peepy who never seems to talk, and of course, Mr. Krook who spontaneously combusts and leaves gore all over his room. Some of this stuff is more central to the plot, but a lot of it is filler.

Cliff Notes was sage enough to point out that Bleak House was written before the age of TV and Internet, when such rambling side plot action would have been more entertaining than annoying. It sadly appears that I am too much a product of my time, although I do see how some readers might actually find the eccentricity enjoyable.

  

  1. The plot is flawed and the book is just too long. Sorry.

 

Sometimes it seems like Dickens had two ideas in his mind: one was a murder mystery, and the other a political rant. Ideally he should have tied them together, such that the murder and secret identity mystery were directly related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. With the build up of the sinister feeling around the lawsuit in the beginning of the novel you are really getting ready for something tangled and twisted, but in the end, it sort of fizzles out. There are some characters who are hurt by its outcome, but that’s directly due to the foolish decisions they made and it hardly seems tragic.

The murder mystery and secret identity plot also fizzle out and reach rather abrupt conclusions, and the emotions of the characters affected are surprisingly subdued. Perhaps such mystery plots were still new at the time and Dickens was fiddling and experimenting.   I can understand that.

But at the end of the day, the book is just too long. There probably are some books in this world that deserve to be 900 pages, but Bleak House isn’t one of them. The scope of action could be much tighter, more centered and impacting, and directly related to that, the characters would be fewer. But then it wouldn’t be a Charles Dickens novel and so we go back to differences in tastes.   One thing Dickens did have a talent for was the whimsical use of words, and I’ll part with this funny little rant of Mr Jarndyce:

The whole thing will be vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive, and I call it, in general, wiglomeration. How mankind ever came to be afflicted with wiglomeration, or for whose sins these young people ever fell into a pit of it, I don’t know; so it is.

 Whether or not Bleak House is an example of literary wiglomeration is up to you, but I will say, it’s a fun word I might start using from now on.

Book #15: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

“Oh man,” I thought, after I finished reading this book for the second time. “How do I do this?”

A recurring theme in A Passage To India is how multifaceted India is and how it’s impossible to put her into a box. Likewise, the novel itself has multiple ideas and aspects that can’t be summed up easily. Is it colonialist, post-colonialist, or neither? It’s a book that has managed to offend both British and Indians (and Edward Said), yet ultimately it’s not even a book about “India.”   Or is it? Like the elephant and the blind men in the old proverb, seven people could read it and each come away with something different but still relevant.

Maybe that’s why I read it twice.

The British Raj is on the wane in the 1920’s when the action begins. Most of the main characters are British, and so is the author. Yet the opening scene is a dinner gathering exclusively of Indians.   The big question of the evening is: “Is it possible to become friends with an Englishman?” Many of the diners argue, “No.” Among them is our eventual protagonist Aziz – a young widowed doctor with a passion for poetry:

“They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better.  I give the Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton.   It is only the difference of a letter.  And I give any Englishwoman six months.  All are exactly alike.”

It seems hardly coincidence, then, when sometime later that evening Aziz stumbles upon an older Englishwoman while both are out for a stroll on the grounds of a mosque. Aziz is mortified at first, but soon realizes the old woman – Mrs. Moore – is open-minded and genuinely interested in exploring the new culture. An unlikely connection develops between the two and Aziz begins to reconsider his previous opinions.

Mrs. Moore has in tow a prospective daughter-in-law, Adela, who also fancies herself open-minded but seems to be hell-bent on seeing “the real India” and having some sort of romantic, whirlwind Oriental experience. Mrs. Moore’s son Ronny is busy trying to keep his head above water with his job as a government worker and does not at all approve of Mrs. Moore and Adela’s dallyings with Aziz and other locals:

“We’re out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them’s my sentiments. India isn’t a drawingroom.”

 “Your sentiments are those of a god,” she said, quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

 Trying to recover his temper, he said, “India likes gods.”

 “And Englishmen like posing as gods.”

Luckily Mrs. Moore and Adela – and Aziz – find a new friend in a school teacher, Cyril Fielding who is even more liberal in his attitudes than the two ladies and even less caring of what his fellow “Anglo Indians” think of him.

Fielding, Aziz, Mrs. Moore, Adela – along with Godbole, a Hindu colleague – begin a fragile but exciting new friendship together as they share food, conversation and poetry. Then one day, a planned expedition of theirs to the famous Marabar Caves goes horribly awry and leaves Aziz in greater doubt than ever before as to whether true friendship with English people is possible.

When I really like a book, I instinctively hold back from summarizing the whole thing.  A Passage to India is worth the read and so I won’t spoil it – especially not the famous climax at the Marabar Caves.  But I will highlight what it is that keeps me thinking about this book, long after I’ve finished reading it.

  1. The Characters

I think Forster had to be a sympathetic character during his lifetime: he was a gay man living in Edwardian England and as such was compelled to keep his identity a secret. In one way or another, all of his most important characters are outcasts or sympathetic.

Aziz is obvious: as an Indian he receives more than his fair share of prejudice and injustice from most of the British characters, although he identifies himself as a Muslim, not as an Indian (the British outsiders mostly fail to appreciate these distinctions within India, which is another recurring theme). It’s only when his negative experiences with the British leave him so embittered that he stands in the rain in a pivotal moment and realizes, “I am an Indian at last.”

For all his tribulations, though, Aziz is not without flaw. His passionate and easily provoked nature leads him to losing faith even in those he could still trust – namely, Fielding.

The relationship between Fielding and Aziz is one of the most memorable in classic literature. Detached and logical Fielding is the perfect foil to Aziz’s more reactive personality and their conversations are barbed and delightful:

(Aziz): “If money goes, money comes. If money stays, death comes. Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb? Probably not, for I have just invented it.”

 (Fielding): “My proverbs are: A penny saved is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine; Look before you leap; and the British Empire rests on them. You will never kick us out, you know, until you cease employing M.L.’s and such.”

Forster had an Indian Muslim friend in his own life – Syed Ross Masood. Most agree that the character of Fielding is patterned after Forster himself, and Aziz was very possibly inspired by Masood. It would make sense: the most convincing and dynamic relationships in literature usually seem to have a basis in real life.

The character of Fielding may not get the flack Aziz does, but he is on the periphery of Anglo-Indian society as he generally prefers the company of Indians to his own people.  He never had that attitude back in Britain – rather, he finds the expat crowd in India to ironically be more closed-minded than the English who live in England.  By siding with Aziz he effectively chooses to go against his own people.

Adela Quested is not your typical heroine, either.  She comes to India restless and full of expectation that’s set up for disappointment. She is well meaning but awkward. When she meets Aziz she sees him only as a label, not as an individual:

In her ignorance, she regarded him as “India,” and never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate, and that no one is India.

 Adela, like Aziz, has to go through her trials and misadventures and in the end becomes a more mature (if still awkward) person for it. Even Ronny, Adela’s uptight fiancé is not without redeeming qualities. He does his best to be patient with his mother and her opinions, which he considers to be idealistic. He tries to be reasonable and understanding, but his stressful and political work life makes it difficult.

One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.

 It would be easy enough for an author writing a critique on British colonialism to depict those in charge as shallow and self-interested. Indeed, some of the more minor characters are just that – but examples like Ronny prove that it’s not always that simple and the reality isn’t black and white.

 2.The Ideas

 The narrative style of A Passage to India is simple and traditional, compared to certain other novels that were written around the same time (think, Virginia Woolf). In that way, it’s an easy and pleasant enough read. But the ideas themselves are anything but simple.

One of the most profound and disturbing parts of the book is when the characters enter the Marabar Caves and hear the endless “ou-boun” sound – the sound that represents the annihilation of every individual quality in life as it’s absorbed into one great whole. It’s a Eastern, particularly Hindu concept, but it freaks out western characters like Mrs. Moore who comes from a culture where individuality and immortality of the soul is paramount. Of course, the revelation in the cave – the “ou-boun” sound – is just fiction, but it gives rise to the thought: why is annihilation of the self so terrifying? Does the self live on after death, or does it get absorbed into something else? What’s the meaning of life, anyway?

A consistent theme I’ve noticed in reading novels that are written post World War I (this one included) is a heightened fear of death that comes with a doubtfulness as to there being any meaning in life. I know that sounds depressing, but I can’t really blame anyone who’s survived World War I for having those thoughts.  In A Passage to India it’s interesting to explore these thoughts with a new spin that involves Eastern religious worldviews.

This novel is, in fact, filled with uncomfortable but important questions. Another one is, “how is England justified in holding India?” It’s a question that Aziz’s friend Hamidullah puts to Fielding.

“It’s a question I can’t get my mind on to,” he replied. “I’m out here personally because I needed a job…”

 “Well-qualified Indians also need jobs in the educational.”

 “I guess they do; I got in first,” said Fielding, smiling.

 “Then excuse me again – is it fair an Englishman should occupy one when Indians are available…?

 Finding himself in a corner, Fielding gives the honest answer the one can only give in such a situation:

“I can’t tell you anything about fairness. It mayn’t have been fair that I should have been born. I take up some other fellow’s air, don’t I, whenever I breathe? Still, I’m glad it’s happened, and I’m glad I’m out here. However big a badmash one is – if one’s happy in consequence, that is some justification.”

 Forster is not one of those authors who takes a nihilistic view of things and claim that truth does not exist. However he suggests that the truth of some matters is more complex than we might assume. The values that the British and the Indians hold respectively lead to culture clashes and confusion. In the foreign atmosphere that is India, one cannot take anything for granted:

But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge into something else.

As a reader you have to wonder if Forster literally means us to understand India in that way, or if India is a metaphor for the world or even life itself. For all the metaphysical rumblings, it never gets dark or bitter like so many other 20th and 21st century novels. The ideas are just clear enough to be discussable, but deep enough to be tantalizing and discussion-worthy.

  3. The Writing

Finally, what is a great novel is the writing is not up to par? A Passage to India can admittedly be a bit dense at times, but the conversational passages are generally wonderful, and some of the descriptions are lovely as well. Here is one example:

The faint, indescribable smell of the bazaars invaded her, sweeter than a London slum, yet more disquieting: a tuft of scented cotton wool, wedged in an old man’s ear, fragments of pan between his black teeth, odorous powders, oils – the Scented East of tradition, but blended with human sweat as if a great king had been entangled in ignominy and could not free himself, or as if the heat of the sun had boiled and fried all the glories of the earth into a single mess.

 Forster traveled to India twice before finishing this novel. It’s not surprising to me, then, how alluring and vivid his descriptions of the scenery are. His India is not a perfectly beautiful one, nor is it sordid and dismal, but rather an intoxicating and arresting mixture of many qualities that resonates with other accounts of India that I have come across over the years. I have always wanted to travel to India, and this novel has only piqued my interest.  I’d be curious to know what people who have been to India think of this book.

There are those novels whose authors are masterful at character development (Jane Austen), others which are intellectually stimulating (Dostoevsky) and yet others which are beautifully written (Lolita, by Nabakov). A Passage to India does not rank first in any of these categories, yet it manages to succeed in all three of them. A testament to this is the fact I have 17 pages’ worth of highlighted passages in my reader, and still haven’t sifted through them all. You could settle down for a book discussion with your friends on a rainy day with a pot of tea and some lemon scones and after three hours still not be done with this book. If I ever am able to make it to India – and it’s high on my list of places to visit – I will definitely read A Passage in India again and will probably find several more new vantages to look at it from. But it’s possible I’ll read it again even before then.

Book #10. To The Lighthouse. By Virginia Woolf.

Describing the plot of a Virginia Woolf novel is self-defeating. I’ll go ahead anyway and perhaps you’ll see what I mean:

“A family on summer vacation thinks about visiting a lighthouse. The mom and kids want to go and the dad doesn’t want to go. Meanwhile, some friends come over for dinner. Fast-forward seven years. A few people are dead. Now the dad decides he wants to go to the lighthouse after all.”

It’s no real wonder that, while incredibly famous in her own right, Woolf never became the “cozy” kind of female British writer that Austen, the Brontës and her predecessors were. She is famous, in fact, because she shook things up a bit. And while To the Lighthouse will probably never spawn a legacy of TV dramas, it is worth reading at least once for its original and sometimes startlingly beautiful use of language as well as innovative narration style. For Woolf is an author of events at the micro level, unfurling things in real-time and flitting from one character’s head to another like an all-knowing, all-seeing moth. The point is not what happens in the story so much as how she tells it.

In the opening scene we are introduced to three immediately distinct characters: Mrs. Ramsay, Mr. Ramsay, and their youngest son James. Mrs. Ramsey announces to James that “if it’s fine tomorrow” they will take a trip to the lighthouse. Six-year-old James feels an extraordinary elation at the news and both his thoughts and sensations are “crystallized and transfixed in the moment.” Not only do we know James’ feelings and sensations, ­we get a picture of them:

James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling – all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he already had his private code, his secret language…

Whereupon the imposing Mr. Ramsay strides over and sours the mood by flatly announcing, “But it won’t be fine.”

This is a classic example of Woolf’s stream-of-conscious storytelling style that she employs throughout To The Lighthouse.   It consists of bits of simple outward, actual events and dialogue acting as bookends to hold together the characters’ interior existence. In this way we get to know the entire troubled yet sympathetic cast of To The Lighthouse, all characters who understandably have problems with each other because, well…no one quite understands (or tries to understand) anyone else. Welcome to life.

First in order of introduction are the Ramsays, an outwardly successful family of ten who may not be quite so content as they first appear – at least not the parents. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (significantly, we never are given their first names) have a difference in education and social roles rather typical of a turn-of-the-century couple, leading predictably to a number of misunderstandings and an understandable degree of self-pity on both sides. Mr. Ramsay is a successful philosopher and scholar paranoid of fading from prominence and memory after he dies.  Morever he struggles to be an academic and a family man at the same time (read: sometimes he’s not very nice to his family).   To outside observers he has sacrificed “all those glories of isolation and austerity which crowned him in youth to cumber himself definitely with fluttering wings and clucking domesticities.”   (Gotta love Woolf’s descriptions). On top of it all, he gives Mrs. Ramsay a rather hard time by pressuring her with his needs to be continually validated, appreciated and loved.

Mrs. Ramsay is an interesting mixed bag of a character. While she is outwardly a staunch defendant of old Victorian values and especially of marriage inwardly she is becoming mildly depressed by existential issues such as death, inequality and sense of purpose in life. She spends much of her time visiting poor people in town, armed with a notebook and pencil for jotting down reflections,

In the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half a relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem.

When she is not “elucidating the social problem,” she is becoming drained from continually giving and mediating in all the family affairs – yet she feels it’s worth keeping the peace – to the point she can’t bring herself to tell her husband that his greenhouse pet project is too expensive for the family budget. While certainly sympathetic, Mrs. Ramsay is one of those characters ripe for a book discussion about to what extent one is responsible for one’s own actions and feelings. Her presence continues to linger in the other characters lives’ even after she has physically departed, and it’s safe to say she makes a pretty powerful impression on the reader as well.

Meanwhile, some of the Ramsay daughters and a young neighboring friend, Lily Briscoe, are beginning to resist the old-fashioned ideals that Mrs. Ramsay keeps stuffing down their throats. Lily in particular is in a sensitive situation as she is past thirty and still single. She feels intensely Mrs. Ramsay’s sentiment that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” In spite of this Lily is determined to focus on the thing that makes her happiest: her painting. If there is one character identifiable with the modern reader, it is Lily – but even so that does not mean she is the most dynamic one.  There is Charles Tansley, the often-insufferable (and secretly insecure) intellect, and also the much more even-keeled William Bankes, the widower botanist who takes an interest in Lily’s paintings and opinions where most everyone else fails to and manages to win her trust.

As I declared from the beginning, trying to wrangle a plot-line out of To The Lighthouse is more or less futile. Wrangling a theme (or two or three) is a different matter. The novel is fertile ground for topical discussions, but the only one I want to highlight right now is that of male-female relationships, especially when it comes to differences in education and social expectation.

Any generic feminist can quickly latch on to the fact that To The Lighthouse is full of criticism and commentary of traditional Victorian values and gender roles. But to see the novel as that simply, and fail to appreciate the development of the individual characters would be a desecration. Mr. Tansley, obnoxious though he can be, is also lonely and awkward. It’s hard not to blame him for feeling stifled and bored while sitting at the dinner table while Mrs. Ramsay carries on about mundane trifles. Likewise the much more likeable William Bankes would also rather be at home with a book than at social gathering with discordant personalities, however delectable the food may be. Even Mr. Ramsay who is too hard on his wife can be understood for experiencing frustration with her lack of logical thinking and educational refinement.

The end result is that a disparity in background and interests as well as societal pressures are responsible for these differences in how men and women get along – or rather fail to get along, whether they are married to each other not. Indeed, Lily Briscoe’s sentiment is that of all human relationships, “the worst (if it had not been for Mr. Bankes) were between men and women.”

While it’s tempting to blame patriarchal men for the overall problem, Woolf hints that it’s not as simple as that – women like Mrs. Ramsay, after all, can perpetuate such culture. Really, all the characters are in a way the product of their circumstances, even as some of them (such as Lily and the Ramsay children) are beginning to break the mold. The empathetic view that Woolf takes of her characters is rather reminiscent of Middlemarch, that work of genius by George Eliot. Woolf herself was a great admirer, and has said that Middlemarch is “one of the few novels written for grown ups.” Perhaps that explains why being a “grown up” person dealing with existential issues and trying to get along with other grown ups is such a forefront theme in this novel.

While the stream-of-conscious writing style and comma-dense paragraphs may not be quite as accessible as Middlemarch’s simpler narrative, To The Lighthouse is certainly a rich novel in terms of human nature. I will admit there were more than I few times when I wondered, “Are they ever going to reach the damn lighthouse?” For a relatively short book, it demands its pages be read carefully – I had to read the opening chapter several times before things started to click. The abrupt shifts in points of view and leaps forward in chronology can be jarring. But if you stick it out you’ll be rewarding with interesting character development and beautiful language. As for the lighthouse itself – well, there’s this old cliché that comes to mind: “Focus on the journey, not the destination.” Read Woolf word-by-word, paragraph-by-paragraph, and you will arrive at your destination before you know it.

Book #5. Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad

A rogue ivory trader gets lost in the African wilderness where a local tribe worships him as a deity. Sounds like it could be a comedy – it’s anything but.

 

 

Have you ever ridden the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland? If you have, you know how it’s an “adventure”-themed experience where you ride in a boat down the Congo River and have close encounters with animatronic hippos, elephants and even a vendor selling shrunken heads. It’s basically a kid-friendly colonial African safari, with nostalgic touches here and there such as pith helmets and cargo boxes with stenciled letters.   It’s corny but fun.

Now imagine a novel set in colonial Africa that may at first seem like inspiration for the Jungle Cruise, but turns into a horror story instead.   Add to this a cultural commentary that may seem to 21st century sensibilities outrageous in its politically incorrect description of native African people and yet at the same time is clearly critical of colonialism and even hints at its downfall.   Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe decried the novel and wrote a famous essay about why it’s so racist. Many others have put it repeatedly on “Top 100 lists” for being among the best and the most important.

Yes, we’re talking about Heart of Darkness.

First of all, before launching into the book itself I have to give props to Joseph Conrad for writing a novel in his third language. That’s correct. Conrad was Polish, actually, and his second language was French. He didn’t learn English till he was twenty. That’s how old most of us are when we’re sophomores in college. And he wrote a bloody book that ended up becoming required high school reading!

That said it’s not the easiest of reads, despite being only 90 pages long. The main story is framed in another story, which means that almost the entire narrative is in quotes, with occasional random interruptions as the 1st-person narrator pauses to take a breath or cough into his sleeve. There’s a lot more philosophical rambling and a lot less action than one would hope for a story set in the African wilderness, but it was published in 1899, so there you go.

The setting is five crewmen aboard a ship that has just pulled into port in London. One particularly crusty veteran, known as Marlow decides now is as good a time as any to launch into a yarn about a disturbing experience he has had sailing a Belgian steamboat up the Congo River in search of a mysterious, missing ivory trader named Mr. Kurtz. He tells his tale as the crew all sit in the dim interior of the ship as the only feeble light there illuminates the craggy bags under his eyes.   You can almost imagine an ashy cigar stub in his hand creating smoke wafts in the room.

“And this also has been one of the darkest places of the earth,” is the opening line.

Marlowe is referring to the fact London was once inhabited only by indigenous people, the Celts – much like how Africa is primarily inhabited by indigenous people at the story’s onset.   However, there could be an ominous double meaning here: namely that London, while supposedly civilized, is every bit as dark as Africa – just in a different way. This signals the beginning of the onslaught of the words “dark” and “darkness” throughout the story, and their double meaning.

Marlowe’s initial descriptions of both the landscape and indigenous people of the African interior would create a knee-jerk reaction in most Millennials and those who are PC-minded. Put this way: one of the most common words he uses for the locals is “savages.” There is the more neutral-sounding “black” (contrasted with “white” for the European conquistadors), as well as “Negroes” and other words starting with the letter ‘N’ that I hesitate to type lest a left-wing activist stumble across this blog post, jump to conclusions in a fit of indignant wrath and ignite a social media shaming campaign against me.

The thing to keep in mind here, though, is that Conrad is more or less speaking out of the context of the life and times he hails from. It would be illogical to expect him to use much different terminology. When the reader tries to separate the particular stigma from these words that they have today and read them in a more neutral way, it will become clear that Heart of Darkness is, in fact, a critique of colonialism at a time when colonialism in Africa was at its height.

Here is Marlow (who is basically Conrad is a loose disguise) waxing philosophical while folding his legs together in “the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes”:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up to and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…” (Pg. 8)

 He suggests the reason people in Europe could justify doing what they did in sub-Saharan Africa is for the sake of something better and worthier, essentially means to a justified end. At the back of one’s mind, though, is this nagging feeling that somehow the ends don’t quite justify the means. This feeling can be traced to the realization that, however much we try to deny it, the human beings we take advantage of, are in fact still human beings. While these other human beings may seem primal and “backwards,” there really is a bit of beastly primal-ness in all of us – the desire to subdue and dominate others.

The earth seemed unearthly…and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. (Pg. 43)

 Whatever the others aboard the steamboat think, it’s clear enough that Marlow is cynical towards the whole situation in Africa. That’s not to say he is a passionate human rights advocate, either. He is cynical towards everyone, and who wouldn’t be in his shoes, sailing up a river to find a greedy Ivory merchant while passing impaled heads on stakes and being assailed by a shower of arrows fired from people on the river bank? I don’t blame him. And naturally he starts feeling the slightest bit resentful towards Kurtz as a result.

The character of the rogue Ivory trader Kurtz is one who’s reputation seems to precede him.   He hardly has any actual “real time” in the story, yet most of the plot is built up in the anticipation of meeting him. Well before he makes his entrance you begin to get a sense of just what a borderline psychopath the guy is, especially when you encounter his sycophantic little sidekick who blabbers on about Kurtz being such an incredible and brilliant individual, despite his insane level of obsession with hoarding ivory and the lengths he goes to do so – which includes threatening to kill anyone who happens to have ivory unless they hand it over to him.

When Marlow finally does manage to find Kurtz, he is living with a local tribe of people, his “adorers,” who apparently worship him as a god. Kurtz himself is mentally disheveled and very ill. He is already at the end of his final hours when Marlowe manages to steal him away from his adopted people and prepare him to board the steamboat to return to civilization. Kurtz’s ominous last words as he lies perspiring are: “The horror, the horror!” Soon afterwards he dies.

Marlow makes the journey back to London where he steels himself to face Kurtz’s fiancée (who also, for some confounded reason seems to think he is God’s gift to humanity) and finds her so sad and weepy that he doesn’t have the guts to tell her what Kurtz’s real last words were. In a feeble attempt to soften the blow and minimize the “horror” of it all he tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name.

Now comes the inevitable churlish high school student’s question: “So what’s the point of this story, again? Why should I care?”

Well, the main thing is that it opens your eyes to the brutal reality that was the Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century. Though written from a colonial perspective it casts the colonists and their motivations in a questionable light. You really get two opposing perspectives from both the narrator as well as other characters, so it creates food for thought, as it were. Also, it makes for a bit of a psychological thriller. Perhaps the eccentric Mr. Kurtz in love with his ivory hoard represents the imperialist nations such as Belgium, France and England – this would explain why he had so many fervent admirers and defendants. But maybe he’s just a guy who goes nuts in the jungle from a bad case of the “green-eyed monster.” You can read it however you want to.

The language, while florid and rambling at times can be clever and humorous as well. At one point, for example, Conrad compares a hippopotamus swimming in the river to an “ichthyosaurus bathing.” I’m sure a linguist would have a field trip with the fact the novella is written in English by a native Pole.   I can’t offer too much insight there.

“Language,” however, does seem to be an important theme in the book. Conrad hints that the dramatic differences in language between the conquering nation and the conquered is part of the reason the former sees the latter as “savage” and sub-human and feel justified in their brutal treatment.

The character of Kurtz is set up on a pedestal even above other the other colonists because of his gift of oratory and eloquence. Even Marlowe feels an inevitable connection to Kurtz at one point because he could “speak English” to him. The dark wilderness casts a deep spell on those stumbling through it, which he describes as “mute,” and capable of awakening “forgotten and brutal instincts.” And when Marlowe and his crew are trying to drag Kurtz onto the steamboat, the protesting natives on the riverbank shout “strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language.” Apparently, language is the key to being considered civilized.

The great irony, though, is that Kurtz’s sophisticated language skills are exactly what allows him to get away with that awful stuff that he does:

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently…was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness. (Pg. 58)

 So the title “Heart of Darkness” possibly has double meaning. Not only does it refer to the intimidating landscape of the African interior, which is only dark in the sense that it’s foreign and alien, but it is Kurtz’s rotten little heart which rationalizes his murderous, racist, Ivory-hoarding agenda to himself and to others as well. (No I did not get that from Cliff Notes, I extrapolated it myself. But hey, if you are inclined to interpret differently be my guest– that’s the beauty in the ambiguity of literature, after all).

In a satisfying completion of the narrative concerned with events in Africa the character who has the last word is not Kurtz but the black cabin boy who pronounces him dead. In stark contrast to Kurtz’s flowery verbosity are the cabin boy’s four staccato words:

“Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

The kid might not be a whiz at English, but he is able to say what needs saying. And perhaps the stark simplicity of it adds even more oomph in contrast with the other characters’ rambling talking styles. Whether it’s an intentional or unintentional effect by the British-Polish author I find it delightful in a novel that otherwise doesn’t exactly “delight” the reader all that much. But it sure will give you a lot to talk about afterwards.

Maybe that’s why they still make high school students read it.